PITTSBURGH – A federal judge has dismissed lawsuits by three former Duquesne University basketball players who claimed the school was responsible when two nonstudents shot them after an on-campus dance in 2006.
U.S. District Judge David Cercone’s 47-page ruling, filed online Saturday, found the school isn’t responsible for the pain, damages and loss of income claimed by Shawn James, Stuard Baldonado and Kojo Mensah because the school had no specific duty to protect the players beyond providing police to patrol the campus, including two officers assigned specifically to the dance.
The judge found that “responsibility for such barbarous and heinous acts can be imposed only under limited circumstances which are not satisfied here,” Cercone wrote. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette first reported the decision Monday.
James, Baldonado and Mensah were three of five players wounded in the shooting on Sept. 17, 2006, following a dance sponsored by the Black Student Union.
Two non-students who attended the dance were convicted in the shootings that also injured Sam Ashaolu – whose similar lawsuit in state court was previously dismissed – and Aaron Jackson, who suffered only a minor wound and never sued.
Attorneys for the former players didn’t immediately return phone and email messages seeking comment. But Steven Zoffer, one of the university’s attorneys, said the judge rightly followed the earlier decision in the Ashaolu case by an Allegheny County Common Pleas Court judge, which was upheld on appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court.
“The federal court is to defer to the substantive law of the state” when there’s no prior federal case that deals specifically with the issue in question, Zoffer said.
The General Assembly, responding to lawsuits brought by students harmed in school settings, about 20 years ago abolished the standard of “in loco parentis.” Zoffer said the Latin phrase means “in the place of parents” and, essentially, had made schools as responsible for students’ safety as their parents would have been under the same circumstances.
“Duquesne is very pleased with the court’s decision in these cases. It is and has always been a safe and secure university campus. Unfortunately, it is not immune to some of the ills that plague our society, including gun violence,” Zoffer said. “We believe that the court understood that, and the decision is consistent with well-established precedent.”
The students sued alleging the school didn’t provide adequate security before the five players were shot.
The lawsuits claim Duquesne should have been held responsible because a student friend of the gunmen, Brittany Jones, had asked a Black Student Union member at the door if her friends would be frisked upon entering the dance. That student working the door failed to alert authorities and allowed the men to enter, according to the lawsuit.
After the dance, the gunmen became upset when a woman with them flirted with the players. An argument ensued and the men shot the athletes, who had already turned to walk away outside the dance about 2 a.m.
Ashaolu, who sustained critical head wounds, recovered enough to graduate in December 2009. Ashaolu remained with the team as a manager and Jackson, the least seriously injured, remained on the team and became an all-Atlantic 10 guard as Duquesne improved to 21-13 and a berth in the NIT in the 2008-09 season. Duquesne had been 3-24 in 2005-06, the season immediately preceding the shooting.
Mensah and James passed up their final season of eligibility to play professionally, Mensah in South America and James in Israel. Baldonado eventually left school after several off-campus run-ins with the law and never played for Duquesne.
The gunmen, William B. Holmes II and Derek Lee – both 18 at the time of the shooting – were sentenced to up to 40 and 14 years in prison, respectively, after pleading guilty. Prosecutors said two shots fired by Lee didn’t wound anyone.
Jones, who admitted to knowingly helping her armed friends into the dance, was sentenced to two years of probation.